By Tom Murphy
Five wrestlers from the Caledonia/Houston/Spring Grove team advanced to the Class AA Minnesota State High School Wrestling Tournament March 1-3 at the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Willie Krage and Casey Stemper qualified as true seconds to join champions Austin Fitzgerald, Connor McCormick, and Austin Goergen at the state classic.
“After (losing) the Kasson-Mantorville meet, I think they came back with the attitude of showing themselves they are capable of reaching the state tournament,” coach Dan Goergen said.
“Everyone worked really hard this year. Everyone contributed to this success, even if they didn’t make it to the state. They were in the practice room working with these guys who did go. The team support for each other made the difference,” he said.
For Krage, success is coming in a hurry. He achieved his 100th career victory against Byron and followed that up with three more wins to get a true second and a trip to the state. A 1-0 loss to the eventual champ was the only setback for the fourth seed in the 113 pound class.
Krage’s coach has had a season-long rave about Krage’s ‘duck under’ takedown move in the wrestling room.
“Willie has always had the drive. He has always been hard on himself. I think his confidence level grew with the one point loss to the eventual champ.” That champion earned the crown by pinning two other opponents in less than a minute.
“There is no one in our wrestling room who can stop Willie’s duck under. He is that quick with it. If only he can work it into his current takedown combinations. He has already proven he belongs at the state meet with his 34-14 record,” Goergen said.
For Stemper, the road was also tough. The 170 pound senior was seeded second. Following a bye and a fall, he shut out the third seed 6-0. In the finals, he wrestled unbeaten Garret Miller of PEM and lost 6-1.
In the true second against the fourth seed, Stemper dominated 7-1, for the trip to the state.
“Casey wanted this more than ever,” his coach said. “He has had years to develop to this point and he has helped everyone else with his leadership. He never got down and he never gave up.”
It seems improbable that a guy who wrestled less than half of the matches of his competitors would win a section title.
But Austin Fitzgerald’s 10-4 record didn’t fool the coaches who seeded him second. Fitzgerald returned to the team after experiencing personal tragedy in his family.
The 132 pound senior had a bye and won by fall before getting a major 10-0 decision over the number three seed from Byron. He then handled the K-M number one seed 10-7.
“Our seniors stayed with Austin and he proved to everyone he is worthy of going to state. He wrestled smart and stayed in control,” Dan Goergen said.
For Connor McCormick, winning the 182 title was a just reward for someone who started on the varsity at an early age, but wrestled two weights up to do so. His characteristic of wrestling aggressively has always been there.
He wrestled 195 for most of the season building a 32-5 record. From the number one seed, he pinned his way to the finals where he won by a major 10-0 decision.
“Connor is a humble kid,” his coach said. “He’s always learning, always asking how he can improve his wrestling. He listens to everyone. He is quite a team player.”
It was the third section title for senior Austin Goergen at the 285 class. A week ago, he lost for the first time this year to Sam Stoll of K-M. He met Stoll in the finals and didn’t leave anyone doubting with a solid 7-2 victory.
“Austin was not wasting any time,” his dad said. “He stuck with his game plan.” He recorded two takedowns and some near falls in the win. To reach the finals, he had a nine second fall in the quarterfinals and a 7-2 decision over a La Crescent wrestler. The nine second fall may have been a new school record.
Troy King finished just two points shy of being the team’s sixth state entrant. Working his way back from a semi-final loss to the eventual champion at 138, King reached the true second finals losing to the third seed from Waseca, 13-11.
Along the way, King had a major decision and two falls to finish with a 30-17 record.
“That true second match was a struggle. Both wrestlers had a mental attitude that the trip to state was theirs. It is unfortunate that Troy came up short,” Dan Goergen said.
Luke Werner lost in the second round to the eventual second place wrestler at 126. He fought his way back with decisions of 2-0, 1-0, and 4-2 before losing a 7-4 for third place.
At 152, Jacob Swindell was not seeded but won 7-5 to reach the semi finals against the number one seed. He lost 1-0 to the eventual second place finisher.
Swindell had a fall to reach the consolation finals where he lost 6-4. “His opponent tied him up and he couldn’t get to his feet,” Dan Goergen said.
“Jacob wrestled well this year. He can be a real force next year in this tournament.”
Shane Loken placed fourth at 160, a weight with two strong entrants into the state tournament. He had a first round bye and then won 7-2 over the fourth seed. He ran into the eventual champ and was pinned.
In the wrestlebacks, Loken won a 5-2 decision before losing 2-1 for third place.
“I thought Shane stayed in full control in that match. It is too bad he didn’t have a chance for the true second.”
Travis Frank had a strong 27-9 record going into the tournament where he was seeded third. He was decisioned in the semi-finals after a quarter-final win by fall.
In the wrestlebacks, he won 5-3 before losing to a GMLO wrestler for third place.
“Travis gave everything he had,” Dan Goergen said. “I told him he was an important part of the team who got the others to the state.”
John Ellenz did not wrestle last year but complied a 26-16 record and was seeded third in the tournament. After a bye, he won by fall before losing by decision to the eventual second place finisher.
In the wrestlebacks, the senior lost by injury default to the fourth seed. “I thought John looked really strong,” Dan Goergen said. “He suffered a head injury and the decision was made to forfeit.”
“John kept the team alive. He had the will power to succeed. With these injuries, one has to take the long view.”
Exchange student David Guth had never seen a wrestling meet before this year. He practiced daily with a group coach Goergen called, “the top five wrestlers in the state.
“He gave them a workout and when his time was called, he placed sixth in the section.” He brought a 3-3 record into the tournament.
Freshman Drew Stemper was not expected by his coach to return this season after coming down with mononucleosis. He was cleared to wrestle just 10 days ago. He lost by a fall but won by a pin over a PEM wrestler in the wrestlebacks. He then lost to the fourth seeded wrestler.
“Drew took the loss hard,” Dan Goergen said. “He gutted this tournament out. We had counted him out to return to wrestle.”
It was a rough go for junior Dylan Stemper. He lost his first round match. He won by fall in the wrestlebacks but then lost in the next round. “I know he will do well for us next year,” Goergen said.
An informal count of points showed K-M winning with 221 points to Caledonia/Houston/Spring Grove’s 210. LARP was third at 154 points. The Warriors had led by a little after the first two rounds.
The finish prompted some of the team to wonder how well it would have done in the team competition, if it had been wrestled this week. Dan Goergen thought K-M had moved its wrestlers up a weight for the team event.
“I did feel we had a better attitude at the individual tournament. I challenged our wrestlers to show themselves how far they could go.
“At St. Paul, I’ll be telling our guys that everyone starts at 0-0. Records mean nothing here. They just need to believe in themselves. They deserve to be there. Just take one match at a time. Anybody can be beaten on any given day.
“If we leave nothing on the mat and believe the sky is the limit, I think we will have a successful tournament.”
The school will send off the team around 9 a.m., Thursday. Individuals will wrestle on Friday at 1 and 5 p.m. and on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. and in the late afternoon for the finals.
There will be a welcome home event on Sunday at the school slated for 1 p.m. Krage and McCormick will be honored for their 100 win seasons.